California Fires Shine Light On Little-Known Private Firefighters08:24
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A Cal Fire firefighter sprays water on a home next to a burning home as the Camp Fire moves through the area on Nov. 9, 2018 in Magalia, Calif. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)MoreCloseclosemore
A Cal Fire firefighter sprays water on a home next to a burning home as the Camp Fire moves through the area on Nov. 9, 2018 in Magalia, Calif. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Kim Kardashian and Kanye West were among celebrities who reportedly had help defending their homes against California wildfires: private firefighters.

Some blasted the celebrity couple for employing what they deemed "concierge" firefighters. But private wildfire defense has actually been around for years — and is more accessible than it might seem.

"We've responded to over 550 wildfires on behalf of the insurance industry," says David Torgerson, president of Wildfire Defense Systems, Inc., a private wildfire defense company. "These are offerings that the insurance companies are doing at no cost to the policyholders. This is not a pay to play and it never has been.

"You just need to pick the insurers that have this, and the insurers have found over time that this is a very effective way to serve their policyholders, mitigate losses and the insurers absorb the costs."

While many might think private firefighters are an option available only to the wealthiest Americans, Torgerson tells Here & Now's Robin Young that more than 90 percent of homes in insurance programs the company serves are average value. Insurers with such a service typically only offer it to policyholders in certain fire-prone areas, however.

"There's nothing particular about the high net worth," he says. "There's no minimum policy levels. You just have to pick the insurer that has that program, and you can have your agent or broker look it up."

Interview Highlights

On primarily working for insurance companies

"The way this model works is that the insurance companies have a wildfire program and we are their service provider for that, and we dispatch engines in a very similar fashion to how our federal government tracks fire and dispatches engines in regions, we operate in a similar fashion."

 

"These are offerings that the insurance companies are doing at no cost to the policyholders. This is not a pay to play and it never has been."

David Torgerson

On insurance companies Wildfire Defense Systems works with

"We work for nearly a dozen insurance companies now. One of the big innovators was Chubb insurance, and they are a high-net worth [insurer], so it is true that we serve high-net worth insurers. But USAA insurance, which is a company that serves our military, active military and veterans and their family ... we work with big insurers and we work with smaller mutual regional insurers, so companies like Mutual of Enumclaw out of Washington state, who insure in a region in the Northwest and some down into California. Even at a smaller insurer scale, they have found [this] customer service, the ability to contribute to not having losses, has been sustainable for all kinds of insurers. We work with Cincinnati Insurance and many others.

On how private wildfire defense companies coordinate fighting fires alongside local and state authorities

"This has been going on ... for over a decade, and 96 percent of the time our government officials that are running the fires and controlling the evacuation zones have seen the value in allowing these insurance-program engines or insurance resources, we call them, to come in and contribute to the survivability of these homes. So we check in with the incident command, we get access granted, we communicate, we coordinate. But this is not new.

"For the last 40 years, private resources have been working on wildfires for the government, and we have been one of those contractors as well since 2001. The difference here is that this is something that we've brought to the insurance industry so that they can contribute and provide services to their policyholders. It's supplemental — it's not taking away from any process, it's adding to resources. The people that we have are firefighters, they've been working in fire for decades. They've worked at state and federal levels. They ... essentially have the exact same certifications under the national system."

On the balance between public and private firefighting resources, and concerns about privatization

"It's not one or the other. We're getting a situation here where the government service replaced the insurance wildfire service 100 years ago. We've come back now since 2008, and where the insurance programs are supplemental and helping, fire is getting to be a bigger problem. We're not eroding anything. You can never have enough resources during a wildfire, as long as they're properly coordinated and properly trained."

On wildfires getting worse, and the likelihood they will continue to occur more frequently

"I think Gov. [Jerry] Brown in California has said this really well: This is the new normal, and expect more of it, for one reason or the other. We live with it every day. In 2008, we were not working as intensely with it. Our seasons were shorter as we were working with these insurer programs, and then each year we would add a couple of weeks. And we're dispatching to fires every month of the year."


Chris Bentley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Jack Mitchell adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on November 19, 2018.

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